The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger for ever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love towards those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
Some of us might wish that the prayer said something to God like, “teach us to forgive others, so that we might also be forgiven.” But it doesn’t, because that would put us in control. That would mean that we could be righteous, reaching out in love to those who had injured and wronged us. But the prayer first asks us to ask to be forgiven. That takes us out of control. We have no choice but to recognise that God is in control. We don’t create our lives; we are not the sole authors of the stories that constitute our lives. We are characters in God’s story.
Consider how often Jesus forgives people. They ask to be healed, he forgives them. They ask for an explanation of his teaching, he forgives them. “Who is this who forgives sins?” his critics asked. In forgiving, he showed us that he was of God, and that we are dependent upon God. So, to reach out for forgiveness means that we are not the sole author of our life stories. There isn’t much that goes against the contemporary understanding of our lives more than to ask for forgiveness. So when we pray “forgive us sins”, we’re asked to come out from behind our facade, to become exposed, vulnerable, empty-handed, to risk reconciliation to the one who has the power to forgive us.
Like so many other parts of this prayer, it’s in the plural. Forgive us our sins. Many of us often like to think our sins are a very private matter between us, and God if we must, yet the fact this is prayer, all the way through, is plural. Perhaps this suggests that God might be more interested in the sins of the church and the world, than in our personal failings?
We choose to sin, holy, loving God, we freely choose, and that is the folly and terror of it. And you choose to forgive, you freely choose, and that is the joy and wonder of it. Just one sign of repentance, one hint of penitence that touches heart, mind, and soul, body, life, and hope, and you forgive; and we, prone to fail and fall are glad of you; for being who you are. Amen.
The Rev’d Michael Hopkins is Minister of the Spire Church, Farnham, Elstead URC, and serves as Clerk of the General Assembly.